I’ve been talking a lot in generalities lately. Big warm and fuzzy ideas that I think need to be guiding us as we make our way forward as creators. I think these things are important. I believe in them.
There are also times when the in your face, nitty gritty details of working in the arts hit me with a force and vehemence that is surprising and overwhelming.
Let’s get a little bit into the gritty and nitty today.
Last night I sat in the audience of a show. It was in a big high-end theater. I helped usher so I saw every single person that walked into the theater on that Thursday night. I exchanged pleasantries, I tore their ticket and I watched them walk into the theater.
I swear at least 80% of them were 65 or older. It’s probably closer to 90%.
I swear this is not hyperbole.
Of all the people I saw working at the theater that night (Literary manager, actors, crew, bartender) only one person that might be in that age bracket. All these young people working at the theater and a much older subset coming to the theater.
That’s weird, right?
Also, I did not love this play.
It was not, for the record, the actors’ fault. They were doing the job. They really were. They were doing their very best to justify some really horrifyingly inane stuff. Things that I took a lot of issue with as a feminist, as an artist, as a –
Look. I’m gonna stop there. I don’t want to rail on this performance. Because the particulars of what I didn’t like aren’t really the point.
The point is I came home fuming. I was mad at this thing. I was mad at the theater. I was sad for the actors that I saw that night, who probably got paid well for this gig, but who I doubt much like what they were saying up there. And I felt this looming thing, of the work that we make that we don’t totally agree with but we do anyway because we think it’s the stuff that audiences will like. I was upset that I feel like I see so many works that people are just slogging through for a paycheck. Work they have resigned themselves to because they don’t see any other way.
And I thought a lot how often I see so few other people that are my age in the audience around me.
Let me say right now that I am not trying to rail on people older than me. This is not an ageist argument. Because youth is not better. People who are younger than 65 are not better or worse people that those that are over 65. But they are only 12.8% of the population in the US according to the 2010 census data. So there’s no reason that they ought to be 80 or 90% of the patronage. I don’t think this is just the particular theater I happened to be at. I think this is mostly true across the non-profit theater world.
The average life expectancy in the US is currently 78 years. Which means that statistically in 15 years almost everyone in that audience I was in will be dead.
Something in theater needs to change.
Because if we don’t do something as an art form, we’re going to be dead too.
I’d like you to think for a moment about the example of Sleep No More.
I think what they’ve done with this show is a revolutionary achievement of a play. Not just because this is a massively successful experimental show. Not because it requires a ton from its audience and they can’t wait to participate. Because the night I went there were SO MANY KINDS OF PEOPLE SEEING IT.
Whether you like its particular style and form or not, and I had plenty of qualms with some aspects of it, you have to admire, support and love the idea that something so weird and avant-garde has managed to hit a chord in so people that has re-energized the desire to go to see a play, often multiple times. This thing has made it fun and exciting and cool and not just “good for you.”
Can we learn from this? Not that we should copy them, but that there is hope that such people are out there. We just need to get to them.
I think model of buying tickets and parking downtown and big lobbies and concession stands and long programs with dramaturgy notes and season subscriptions and paying a lot of money to leave a plaque on the seat is over.
I think it’s been over for a while.
I think there is an ever-shrinking base of people with more money than most that like this system just the way it is. But I don’t think they are our future. Let me be clear: I don’t think they are bad. And I don’t think everyone who is over 65 wants that old way of seeing theater. But I think more of them do. And I don’t think we should be making theater only for these kinds of people. Because if we do, I think we will exclude people who don’t care to take in performance this way. And if we don’t figure out how to get in those other people, soon we won’t have anyone left.
I think most of us kind of know this already. I think most of us are really afraid to admit it.
If you are a theater maker, for just this moment, be really honest with yourself: When you are in rehearsals making your art, who is the person you imagine in the audience? Are they like you? Do they think the way you do? Do they have similar interests and concerns? Do they look at the world from a similar perspective?
Is everyone in the room somewhere between 25 and 45?
Are those the same people that you see in the audience?
And are you ok with that?
Are the people you spend so much time courting, the people around whom we start to tweak and change our work for, the same people we most want in the seats? Or are they the ones that we think we are likeliest to get?
I’m not just talking about age. I’m talking about real diversity of audience. Of perspective on what performance can and should be. Of people who come to what we make from a variety of classes and income levels. People with a variety of facility in technology. People seeking different genres: action, suspense, horror, western, romance, comedy, science fiction, magic realism.
Is there a large swath of the country that simply don’t listen to music? No. Everyone listens to music. They listen to different kind of music. They take it in through different kinds of experiences. But they don’t avoid the genre of art as a whole.
We need to find a way to do the same with our performances.
We need to find a way to get more people interested in what we’re doing.
This is not an option.
This is simply a fact.
I like new art, and new experiences, and new experiences of new art. But I need to know I am safe and not going to “mess up” the art or the experience etc. I get very uncomfortable when I do not understand the social “rules” of a situation. I can do a concert – we clap here, we do not clap here. or We all just stand around at the Electric Factory. If you are on the edge of a mosh pit, adopt this stance to help protect yourself as well as assist the moshers. However, in many new “experiential” theatrical events, I do not know what to do. I don’t know if I should move or stand still, I don’t know if I should interact or move away and so I shrink away and just feel uncomfortable rather than seeing or hearing or being theater. As an audience member, I want to request “non-traditional” theater makers to provide audience advocates – people who gently guide us and instruct us in the new etiquette and structure – what is allowed, what is not allowed. While it is new, I also need to feel some safety. I will ride any roller coaster because I feel safe locked in my seat belt and harness, take that away from me as a theater viewer and I am unmoored, unsure of how to move, act, respond, even just BE.
I hear you. But I also think the entrenched idea that an audience member comes in afraid that they will “mess up” the art is a little bit of the tradition of art going that I think keeps so many people away. I think a lot of people feel like they don’t understand the current rules or that those rules are so restrictive they feel that can’t relax. I think part of why a concert is easy and fun is that there are just a lot less rules – you can move, you can dance, you can clap or just listen but none of those things are doing it wrong.
Think of all the things one is not allowed to do in a theater – talk, move, cough, make too much noise, unwrap candy, look too much at the program, bring food in the theater, put feet up on the seats. No wonder people would rather go to a bar.
I am all for experimental theater being kind, and I agree you can’t ask an audience to participate without being clear and kind in how you do so. But I just want to point out that there are plenty of rules that we currently expect people to just understand. And maybe if we create new ones, we can teach our new audiences those rules just like we’ve taught the old ones.